Editorial -- As Russia's Economy Crashes, Vladimir Putin Looks Out for Himself

Friday, January 2, 2009

AS WESTERN governments scramble to manage the economic downturn, Russia's Vladimir Putin, whose country is in deeper trouble than most, is pursuing his own crisis strategy. The difference is that the Kremlin's approach is aimed at rescuing one man -- Mr. Putin -- and banks more on political repression than monetary tools.

While the United States and European Union have spent the past two months constructing emergency bailout programs, Mr. Putin's puppet president and rubber-stamp parliament have been rushing to ratify a new constitutional amendment extending the presidential term from four to six years. By signing it this week, President Dmitry Medvedev may have ensured his own political demise. Russian analysts say the measure is intended to allow Mr. Putin, who finished two four-year terms as president last spring, to begin a new 12-year stint. Some believe that Mr. Medvedev could be forced to resign in the near future so Mr. Putin can retake the presidential office before Russians fully feel the effects of the country's plummeting oil revenue, depreciating currency and massive capital flight.

Another crisis measure awaiting Mr. Medvedev's signature would abolish jury trials for cases of terrorism or treason. Such charges are favored by the secret police apparatus that surrounds Mr. Putin, a former KGB operative; judges appointed by the Kremlin are far more reliable in returning convictions than are Russian citizens. A third initiative, awaiting parliamentary consideration, would expand the definition of treason and espionage. In the future, anyone "taking action aimed at endangering the constitutional order, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia" could be imprisoned for 20 years. Legal experts say that the charge could be brought against critics of Mr. Putin who talk to foreign journalists or nongovernmental organizations.

As for the actual economic crisis, Mr. Putin has repeatedly warned the domestic media not to discuss it. "There is no need to scare each other and exacerbate things," he said the other day. Many Russians, as a result, may be only dimly aware that the stock market has dropped more than 70 percent in the past year, that investors have pulled $190 billion out of the country since August and that next year's government budget is showing a deficit because of the collapsing price of oil. "The situation is complicated but far from hopeless. We know what to do about it," said Mr. Putin. In fact his government has done very little to rescue an economy it has made overly dependent on oil and gas exports. But it has provided for Mr. Putin's future -- and ensured that anyone who stands in the way can be quickly disposed of.

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